Le Tote Broke My Clothing Crush

It gave me everything I ever wanted, and I got bored.

Photo credit: Emily May, CC BY 2.0.

Love at First Swipe

The first time I bought clothing for myself, it was a revelation. It was also probably a crop top from Target with a smiley face (I was 11 years old, it was the ‘90s, leave me alone).

Sliding something off the hanger combined three great passions: looking cool (“cool”), feeling tactile-visual joy, and experiencing the rush of owning something new. It was heady. The sensation of thumbing through the colors and patterns and textures, finding the right size, and trying it on, seeing the material drape over hip and breast — I loved it like not much else.

If it sounds sexual, it’s because it borderline was, and not even that borderline: that “oooooh” when something looked really, really good was real. Buying clothing bought me pleasure. It made me feel pretty, happy, and safe. Never mind that it never lasted.

Baby tee romance kicked off a long and tumultuous liaison: I graduated from Target and thrift stores to designer labels and independent boutiques, racking up credit card debt like a champ. By the end of my 20s, I had a lot of pretty dresses. I also had debt in the double digits.

Bank account depleted and closet overflowing, I realized I was tired of the affair. I’d gone to years of therapy, and wrestled with the hoarding and anxiety with which I’d grown up. I didn’t need a bursting closet to protect myself, and I didn’t need a satin floral track jacket to feel secure. (Sometimes a jacket is just a jacket, even if it’s a really great jacket.)

So I bought less clothing. A lot less. I wrote about it. But I still struggled. Clothing was an ex I couldn’t quit: I’d go months without buying anything new, then have a bad day at work, see something beautiful, and I was right back where I started, tapping my CVV into some website. It’s a really good sale, can’t pass it up, I told myself. I always had a reason. Afterwards, I felt gross and uncomfortable, like I’d hooked up with someone I knew was a bad call.

I wanted out of the relationship. I needed a more healthy, platonic intimacy with my wardrobe. I turned to Le Tote.

The Netflix of Clothing

I’d heard of clothing rental services for a few years — Stitch Fix, The Ms. Collection, Le Tote — and I’d already signed up with Rent the Runway, leasing evening gowns for company parties and the six million weddings you attend in your early 30s. Rent the Runway had gone well: I’d worn the dress, folded it gently into the black garment bag, and sent onto the next person with a special event and a love of Badgley Mischka. Did I want to keep these glittering frocks? Yes. Did I keep them? Nope.

Part of the reason was money. I’m pretty good at impulse purchases, but I had limits; the dresses on Rent the Runway were several hundred dollars at least, more than I usually felt comfortable dropping in one swoop. Part of it was a creeping sense of absurdity —what was I going to do, sit around in Marchesa and read comic books? If I’m being honest, that sounds amazing; but, Real Housewives fantasies aside, my latent yet emerging sense of fiscal responsibility helped me realize I didn’t need a set of formal gowns.

Still, Rent the Runway gave me hope. I could love something, maybe love it a lot, and then let it go, like a beautiful stranger that was fun for a party but didn’t ever really support my dreams. Le Tote seemed like the logical next step. It was one of the few clothing rental services that truly was a rental. Stitch Fix and the rest of them looked fine, but I didn’t need help with styling. Most importantly, I didn’t want to keep the clothing — that would defeat the whole purpose of the experiment.

Le Tote is $60 a month and gives you unlimited clothing rentals. You can read more about how it works here, but the unlimited was what sold me. I spent several hundred dollars a month on clothing at my worst, and spending $60 on limitless options seemed like a good trade. I was nervous, though— would Le Tote actually help me save, or would I just keep it all? Was I buying a subscription to more debt?

But, after my initial binge through the Netflix of clothing, something unexpected happened. Le Tote gave me everything I ever wanted, and I got bored.

I lost interest in clothing, something I once loved way more than financial security. I still can’t believe it. That crazy pull had been part of me for so long. I thought it was ingrained forever.

Like most things, forming a new relationship took trial, error, and time. It didn’t happen all at once. The first few months with Le Tote, I reveled in the variety. Package after package of tops and blazers and dresses. A new look every week, sometimes every day if I sent it back fast enough. I’d run home from work and rip clothes out of their paper coverings, trying things on in front of the hallway mirror while my cat and boyfriend looked on. I could feel the blood rushing in my ears. I backslid, and the thing I’d feared did happen: I bought the clothing they sent. A shirt. A dress. Another dress. I started to feel that familiar cramp in my gut, the whisper of you’re doing it again, and made a new rule: I had to send it all back. Every time. No excuses.

Once I committed to the all-return policy, clothing and me began to drift apart. I started to notice things. I’m particular about what I like, but if I stopped to think about it, most of what they sent was just fine. On the other hand, I rarely loved what came out of that pretty pink box — or rather, I found reasons to not love it. It fit weird. The color wasn’t great. It was too office-y (never mind that I work in an office). I’d like something, wear it, and poke holes in my affection until it lost its magical powers. A shirt could sometimes be just that. Not owning the clothing made it easy to detach — when I was done, I could send it back. I hadn’t committed, and could walk away at any time.

Trying things on and finding most of them wanting, I was able to distinguish between attraction and real passion. I started to see clothing for what it actually was: not a guarantee or a promise, but yet another unstructured blouse that made me look kind of pregnant. I’m not quite ready to have children, but I was ready to let my long-time love go.

Leaving the Closet Door Cracked

Last month, I canceled Le Tote. Getting all the clothing I could ever want provided perspective. The $60 a month goes into my savings account, and I have yet to revert to the same level of spending spree. Plus, years of buying clothes like a freight train gave me plenty to fall back on — I rediscovered my existing wardrobe, finding new ways to like what I already had. I did no additional clothing shopping when I was subscribed to Le Tote, which had a strange and not unpleasant side effect: when I stopped going off the rails, I saw where I actually could use some help. (Pants. It’s always pants.)

Quitting Le Tote didn’t turn me into a clothing monk. A beautifully tailored hem or cut detail still makes me catch my breath. But it broke some of the power clothing had over me. The desire is still there, but its more manageable, less raw and rabid; a low simmer that I can tamp, not an unstoppable, torrid wave. (In less poetic terms, baby’s getting self-control.) I will not die if I don’t own that coat. I can walk away, and usually do. I still buy things, but it’s in the singular and spaced out: a jacket here, a new pair of jeans there. My savings account grows by a few hundred a month, like a delicate fern under faint but persistent light.

The Le Tote approach may not work for everyone. The border between addiction and behavior that’s hard to break can get fuzzy, and I won’t play armchair psychologist. Likewise, this is not a catchall, one-and-done solution: a tropical-print romper won’t cure insecurity, and quitting a clothing subscription doesn’t mean I’ll stop wrestling with a want that is both wonderful and when let run awry, financially punishing. But renting was a big step towards redefining my relationship with clothing. It helped me realize world marches on much the same whether or not I throw my credit card at a shearling vest, and end up poorer for the thrill. I like where I’m at with clothing, post-Le Tote. I hope we can stay good friends.

Rosamund Lannin reads and writes in Chicago, by way of San Francisco and St. Paul. More at tinyletter.com/rosamund.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.